New research finds a link between stress hormones and epilepsy

A study published online in the journal Stress has unveiled a connection between stress and the onset of psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES), a condition characterized by spasms similar to epileptic seizures.  According to scientists, PNES resemble epileptic seizures with symptoms including tossing of the head that can last for about a few minutes. Health experts note that people who suffer from the condition, especially female patients, were previously labeled as being hysterical. This puts a lot of strain on both the patients and their families, the experts said.

A team of researchers at the Aarhus University in Denmark had enrolled 15 PNES patients and 60 controls as part of the study. Participants with PNES had reported a higher degree of various types of abuse including sexual abuse, violence, and bullying as well as feelings of abandonment and a reduced quality of life. The scientists then measured the concentration of a wide array of hormones in the participants’ blood.

The findings showed that PNES patients have significantly lower levels of the hormone neuropeptide Y (NPY) in their blood. According to the research team, this hormone is responsible for increasing a person’s resilience during stressful events.

“We have now finally demonstrated a biological cause for these otherwise unexplained seizures. This knowledge alone can be enough to remove the sense of powerlessness experienced by both patients and practitioners. We know that the amount of NPY that is released in a stressful situation is genetically determined. Some people are genetically more resistant to stress, while others are particularly vulnerable,” researcher Michael Winterdahl told Science Daily online.

Study confirms that stress triggers epilepsy

A meta-analysis published in April 2017 also demonstrated a correlation between stress and epileptic seizures. A team of researchers at the University of Cincinnati Epilepsy Center examined 21 studies in order to carry out the review. The studies, which were published between the 1980’s until 2017, were based on various sources such as functional magnetic resonance imaging results and accounts of patients who had kept journal entries of stressful events and subsequent epileptic attacks. (Related: Meditation changes the structure of your brain, cuts stress in half according to new study.)

The research team observed an increase in seizure frequency following high-stress events such as war, trauma, or natural disaster, or the death of a loved one. The scientists specifically cited a 2002 study that demonstrated the effects of the Croatian war in the early 1990’s on pediatric health. The health experts observed that children living in war-affected areas had more episodes of epileptic seizures than those not affected by the war.

“Stress is a subjective and highly individualized state of mental or emotional strain. Although it’s quite clear that stress is an important and common seizure precipitant, it remains difficult to obtain objective conclusions about a direct causal factor for individual epilepsy patients Any patient reporting stress as a seizure trigger should be screened for a treatable mood disorder, especially considering that mood disorders are so common within this population,” researcher Dr. Heather McKee stated in another Science Daily article.

The researchers also highlighted the importance of stress reduction initiatives to alleviate the occurrence of stress-related epileptic seizures.

“What I think some of these studies point to is that efforts toward stress reduction techniques, though somewhat inconsistent, have shown promise in reducing seizure frequency. We need future research to establish evidence-based treatments and clarify biological mechanisms of the stress-seizure relationship. [Stress reduction efforts in epileptic patients] could improve overall quality of life and reduce seizure frequency at little to no risk,” researcher Dr. Michael Privitera added.

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